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The NSA surveillance scandal and its fallout: Ladar Levison in extensive interview

The NSA surveillance scandal and its fallout: Ladar Levison in extensive interview

Alexander R. Cohen

3 Mins
January 19, 2014

What kind of man refuses to cooperate with the government’s efforts to gain access to Americans’ information?

What kind of man shuts down his business rather than betray his customers ?

What kind of man is trying to reinvent email to make it private ?

Late last year, Ladar Levison sat down with me for a Skype interview. I didn’t expect it to go as long as it did. But when it was over, I had perhaps the most extensive, in-depth interview ever done with the man who, more even than Edward Snowden himself , represents the opposite of the NSA. Levison is the programmer who launched a small business and grew it without shareholders or venture capital in order to keep it true to its commitment to private email; who provided Snowden and other customers with private email ; who went out of business rather than give the government access to all his customers’ email ; and who has now joined forces with the “godfather of political cryptography,” Phil Zimmerman, to reinvent email .

Since the interview, I’ve released two short videos based on it: one on the technology of private email , and one on the connection between his story and that of Ellis Wyatt in Atlas Shrugged .

Now, on this page, I’m releasing the whole thing. Well, virtually the whole thing. Eighty-four minutes.

Levison is fighting for email privacy on three fronts: technological, legal, and political. In the video, we discuss all three.

But we also discuss why he’s fighting, and whether he thinks other people should do what he did. It’s a discussion that takes us through his views of business ethics and the foundations of a free republic.

And that means it’s an opportunity to try to understand a man who has gone to great risk and expense to defend one of the most contested values in America today: privacy. Hear him talk about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged; about the moral lesson he learned traveling around the country with his grandfather, a retailer; and about the history of freedom in America.

What kind of man is Ladar Levison? Judge for yourself. But if I had to describe him in a single word, I would say that he is, in the best sense of our country’s traditions, an American.

Don’t want to watch 84 minutes? Here are some tips: If you want to hear about Lavabit’s last days, start at the beginning, and if you get bored when the conversation shifts to other subjects, skip to about 40:00 or 46:51. If you want to hear about technology, jump 12 minutes in. If you’re interested in what Levison thinks other businesses should do, skip to 24:17 or 28:54. Atlas Shrugged fans might particularly enjoy the thread of conversation that starts at 31:28. He talks about politics, American history, and threats faced by dissidents beginning around 58:00. And at 1:16:55, he discusses a theme of President Obama’s NSA speech.